Having won a 1989 Tony nomination for his harrowing portrayal of a cockroach in Steven Berkoff's "Metamorphosis," Mikhail Baryshnikov is no less adept -- and considerably more endearing -- playing an automobile in the charming if uneven ensemble piece Rezo Gabriadze has constructed from a folk tale of his own invention.

Having won a 1989 Tony nomination for his harrowing portrayal of a cockroach in Steven Berkoff’s “Metamorphosis,” Mikhail Baryshnikov is no less adept — and considerably more endearing — playing an automobile in the charming if uneven ensemble piece Rezo Gabriadze has constructed from a folk tale of his own invention. The car in question is no sleek Lamborghini, which would have suited the cosmopolitan character the renowned Russian dancer played in “Sex and the City,” but a rickety Soviet-era bucket-of-bolts, and totally imaginary to boot. Even when the show runs out of metaphorical gas, this little car proves indestructible.

Chito, the demented character who thinks he’s a car, plays the wise fool in this parable, which director-puppeteer Gabriadze (best known outside his native Georgia for “Battle of Stalingrad” and “Autumn of My Springtime”) has set on Christmas Eve 1952 in the Soviet republic of Georgia.

It’s the gloomiest night of the year in Chito’s village, where a blizzard is blowing and all comforting religious festivities are forbidden by repressive government decree. The only creatures stirring in this bleak landscape are the pack of wild dogs, artfully represented by actors toting their snarling snouts on hand-held metal shields that make a fierce racket when rattled.

The weary doctor of the village (Jon DeVries), recently widowed, has just settled down in his cottage to brood on his own misery when Chito rouses him to tend to a sick child. Offering himself as transportation, Chito urges the doctor to trudge through the snow to the far end of town.

The guardian angel (Luis Perez) who watches over the village adds his own encouragement. “If you complete this journey, you’ll find peace,” he promises. “You’ll find your wife in your dreams, and she’ll forgive you.”

But the journey so exhausts the doctor that he thoughtlessly disabuses Chito of the delusion that he is a car — stripping him of the window crank he uses to start his motor and opening the poor fool’s eyes to the cruelty of reality. (“What kind of people are we?”)

The devastation etched on Baryshnikov’s sad-eyed face and the regret that lands like a weight on De Vries’ hunched-over shoulders capture the poignancy of the human condition that Gabriadze is aiming for throughout this piece, but it keeps eluding him in the stilted scripted dialogue.

The director is on surer footing when he regards his live actors as overgrown puppets and puts his storytelling energies into his inventive staging effects, which run the imaginative gamut from dance and mime to prop-art.

Indeed, the most enchanting moments in this piece occur during the wordless 20-minute prologue in which we learn how Chito came by his absurd delusion. On a bare stage washed by Jennifer Tipton’s mood-altering light changes, Baryshnikov first appears as the sailor he once was, greeting the sweetheart who awaits him on shore by signaling his love in the silent language of semaphore. After learning she has betrayed him to marry his best friend, he turns back to the sea — whose undulating, storm-tossed waves are imaginatively suggested by rolling logs — and tries to drown himself. His misery heightened by other artful stage effects (cutouts of the sun and the moon hand-hung by the angel in battered wings and red spats who rescues him from the sea), he suffers through the night and the day until he is reborn — as a car.

Drawing on Chaplinesque moves for this transformation, Baryshnikov proves himself a gifted mime and something of a rogue comic, as he cranks his starter, revs up his motor and shimmies down the road to offer free rides to anyone who can use a lift.

Although the story proper has more to do with Gabriadze’s themes about political repression, religious persecution and the indomitability of the human spirit, it could use more of the kind of magic that comes through in the prologue.

Forbidden Christmas, or The Doctor and the Patient

John Jay College Theater; 680 seats; $60

Production

A Baryshnikov Dance Foundation and David Eden Prods. presentation of a play in one act written and directed by Rezo Gabriadze, translated by Ryan McKittrick and Julia Smeliansky. Assistant director, Dmitry Troyanovsky; choreographer, Luis Perez.

Creative

Sets, costumes, sound collage, Gabriadze; lighting, Jennifer Tipton; sound, David Meschter; production stage manager, Mary-Susan Gregson. Opened and reviewed July 9, 2004; runs through July 17. Running time: 1 HOUR, 30 MIN.

Cast

Chito - Mikhail Baryshnikov The Doctor - Jon DeVries Ermonia, et al. - Luis Perez Tsisana, et al. - Pilar Witherspoon Mother, et al. - Yvonne Woods
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